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Whiteheads are a form of acne that stay under the skin, but produce a raised white bump. Acne breakouts commonly occur on the face, back, chest, and sometimes the neck and shoulders.
Acne is a widespread skin issue. It generally begins during puberty, when sex hormones cause changes in the body. Acne occurs in about
Acne issues, such as whiteheads, can appear at any age and may cause a sporadic single whitehead or breakouts over larger areas of skin.
These blemishes tend to appear in areas with larger concentrations of sebaceous glands, the glands responsible for creating the skin’s sebum, or oils.
Whiteheads can have many causes, including increased sebum production and shedding cells in the hair follicles. Androgen hormones, also known as reproductive hormones, play a role, which explains why acne is widespread in puberty.
Clogged pores can develop when the sebum cannot reach the surface of the skin and gets stuck. As more sebum builds up behind the clogged pores, whiteheads appear.
There are various forms of acne. This article will look specifically at whiteheads, and describe the causes and treatments of this type of skin condition.
- Approximately 85% of people in the United States have reportedly had acne at some point.
- Hormonal changes can result in acne, though the link is not entirely clear.
- Other causes include diet, perspiration, and reactions to certain skin care products and fabrics.
- Gently washing the skin twice a day with mild soap and lukewarm water can help.
It is tempting to remove an individual whitehead. However, it is best to use extraction tools to pop a whitehead, as improper removal may leave an unsightly or painful mark.
Picking or popping whiteheads may cause more harm in the long run. Using fingers to pick a whitehead transfers dirt and oil to the area from the hands, which may lead to more clogged pores and subsequent whiteheads.
Additionally, popping or picking the whitehead is likely to break the skin open. This can leave an open wound that bacteria can enter, causing an infection. The surrounding skin may also become inflamed and irritated, and the wound may lead to scarring.
It is better to avoid removing the whitehead at all unless it is done under the care of a skincare professional. Popping a pimple can typically do more harm than good to the skin.
If it is absolutely necessary to remove a whitehead, it is important to be as clean as possible and try to prevent damaging the skin.
Some general tips for whitehead removal include:
- applying a warm compress or steam to the area beforehand to help open the pores
- cleaning the hands thoroughly before attempting to pop the whitehead
- using small cotton pads or swabs to prevent extra oil from getting on the skin
- applying gentle pressure to both sides of the whitehead to get it to pop, and stopping if the whitehead does not pop with this gentle pressure
- rinsing and cleansing the area after popping
In general, a person should not pick a whitehead. Instead, a dermatologist may recommend the person use treatments that help remove whiteheads as they start or prevent whiteheads from developing in the first place.
Treatment will vary between people as everybody’s skin is different. Some methods and home remedies are better for certain skin types and sensitivities. Individuals should work with a skin care professional to find their skin type and home remedies that best suit them.
When using any remedy for whiteheads, it is important to use good sunscreen before exposing the skin to the sun. Many home treatments for acne can sensitize the skin to light. Wearing an oil-free sunscreen helps prevent sun damage to the skin.
Some general whitehead treatments and home remedies for whiteheads may be a good starting point.
Witch hazel is a natural astringent. Astringent compounds help the skin cells to shrink and dry out extra oil. Witch hazel can also have an antibacterial effect, helping remove some of the bacteria that lead to breakouts. It may also have a mild anti-inflammatory effect.
Witch hazel may be a helpful tool for some to use during their regular skincare routine. It does dry out the skin, so it may not be right for regular use of those who are prone to dryness.
Learn about remedies for dry skin on the face here.
Raw honey may be a helpful tool for various issues in acne. Raw honey has a number of helpful properties, including being an anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antioxidant product. It may help reduce redness from acne, as well as kill and prevent the bacteria that thrive in or cause acne.
Raw honey may also improve wound healing from broken whiteheads or open wounds. The natural enzymes in the honey create hydrogen peroxide, helping prevent more bacteria from growing.
After washing, apply raw honey to clean skin over problem areas and leave it for 15-20 minutes before rinsing off and continuing with the skin care routine.
Tea tree oil
There are several uses for tea tree oil, which include helping skin issues, such as whiteheads and acne.
Tea tree oil has important antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties. Many over-the-counter (OTC) products designed for the face contain tea tree oil, as it helps cleanse and tone the face.
A 2019 review notes that tea tree oil for mild to moderate acne is effective most people tolerate it well. However, the authors recommend diluting tea tree oil to 1% for use on the skin.
Either find a product with simple ingredients that also includes tea tree oil or make a heavily diluted mixture at home from pure tea tree oil. Apply it to the skin as part of a regular skin care routine.
Aloe vera is a gel-like substance from the aloe vera plant. It may soothe acne-prone skin, help eliminate bacteria, and prevent scarring.
Aloe vera may also play a role in treating mild to moderate acne. Research from
Look for pure aloe vera, or find products that contain aloe vera along with other non-irritating ingredients.
Learn more about aloe vera for the face here.
Lemon juice contains an acid that works to dry out the skin and remove extra oils. Fresh lemon juice also contains antibacterial compounds. These can be important properties for those with oily skin or whiteheads from bacteria.
Apply lemon juice mixed with water to the skin with a cotton pad. Leave it on the skin for 15-20 minutes before rinsing off. It may be best to test on a small patch of skin first to be certain the lemon juice is not too harsh for sensitive skin.
Learn more about lemons and their health benefits here.
Salicylic acid is an astringent, found in many OTC products designed for acne. Salicylic acid works against whiteheads in several different ways, including:
- soaking up excess oil and drying out oily skin
- reducing oil production
- helping push particles clogged in the pores towards the surface of the skin
- getting rid of dead skin cells
Many OTC products, creams, and washes contain salicylic acid. Choosing a product with simple, clean ingredients that include salicylic acid may help a person discover if the compound is right for their skin.
Learn about using salicylic acid to treat acne on black skin.
Benzoyl peroxide is another OTC remedy for acne. The compound has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties which may help dry up excess oil from the skin. This may help prevent the pores from clogging and causing whiteheads.
A number of OTC washes and toners for acne contain Benzoyl peroxide. Look for a product that contains non-irritating ingredients to properly test if benzoyl peroxide is right for the skin. It may also help to start with lower concentrations, as benzoyl peroxide can be harsh or too drying for some skin types.
Retinol and vitamin A
Topical retinoids are an important medical treatment for acne. They act as helpful antioxidants, may reduce inflammation in the area, and help promote healthy skin cell growth and behavior.
Doctors may recommend prescription-strength retinoid treatments for acne.
There are some OTC versions of similar compounds as well, generally labeled retinol. Both retinoids and retinol derive from Vitamin A but have slightly different structures. Retinols are generally more mild versions of retinoids, making them safer for regular use.
Find products containing retinol that have clean ingredients that will not irritate the skin. Start with using the product every few days to test for sensitivity, before moving to using it as part of a daily skincare routine.
Learn more about retinols as an acne treatment here.
Alpha hydroxy acid (AHA)
Alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) are found in many OTC acne products. They are primarily exfoliants, meaning they help remove dead skin cells and clumps of keratin. This may help avoid the clogged pores that lead to whiteheads.
AHA types can vary and may include individual acids such as:
- lactic acid
- glycolic acid
- citric acid
- tartaric acid
Each acid type may have varying degrees of exfoliating abilities and may be more or less harsh for the skin. It may help to test AHA products on a small patch of skin to check for a reaction before moving on to a larger area.
Learn how to exfoliate skin on the face here.
Apple cider vinegar
Raw apple cider vinegar is a naturally acidic substance, containing acetic acid along with other acids. These are types of AHA that can help exfoliate the skin and act as an astringent, helping to dry out extra oil in the pores and shrink their size.
Apple cider vinegar may also help reduce inflammation, and the high acidity may help kill the bacteria that lead to acne.
However, apple cider vinegar can be very harsh on the skin. It may be necessary to dilute it into a mixture containing 75% water or more. Even then, it may be too harsh for some skin types. It may be best for people with very oily skin types when used as a treatment for problem areas. Pay attention to any signs of irritation.
Learn about the side effects of apple cider vinegar and how to use it safely.
Ten effective self-care tips for whiteheads
The following strategies can help to treat and prevent acne breakouts:
- washing the skin gently with mild soap and lukewarm water twice a day
- patting the face dry rather than rubbing
- refraining from squeezing pimples or touching the skin unnecessarily
- using caution when shaving
- avoiding excessive sun exposure that could cause tanning or burns
- using only oil-free, noncomedogenic skin care products, which do not clog the pores
- using cosmetics sparingly
- removing makeup before going to bed
- using fragrance-free, water-based, emollient products to treat dry skin
- regularly washing the hair and keeping hairspray away from the face
- wearing loose clothing made of natural fabrics such as cotton, linen, and hemp
- maintaining a healthy diet with less sugary and high-sodium food or drinks
Acne can cause long-term scarring and emotional distress. Anyone concerned about their acne should seek the help of a medical professional or dermatologist, as there may be a treatable underlying health issue.
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A healthcare provider can offer additional information and recommend ways to treat whiteheads and other forms of acne.
Learn how to get rid of acne scars here.
Researchers are still exploring the exact cause of acne but say that changing levels of hormones may impact the functions of the sebum gland, leading to issues such as sebum retention, increased sebum production, and inflammation.
Research also notes other factors that may aggravate acne, including:
- foods with high glycemic numbers
- foods high in hormones, such as dairy products
- oil-based cosmetics
- facial massage with oils
- premenstrual flare-ups
- anxiety and anger, likely from stress hormones.
Acne can also result when clogged pores become infected with Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes) bacteria, which occurs naturally in the skin.
Learn more about hormonal acne here.
Other factors may make acne worse, including:
- certain medications
- contact with sports equipment
- backpacks, tight bras, or sports uniforms
- excessive sweating
- popping pimples
- scrubbing of areas with acne too hard
- lack of washing
Both whiteheads and blackheads are types of acne blemishes called comedones. There are two common types of comedones: open and closed.
A whitehead is a closed comedone. It is a result of clogged pores under the skin’s surface, causing the sebum to build up behind it and make a raised, white bump appear.
A blackhead is an open comedone. Blackheads appear due to a plug of the sebaceous pore on the skin’s surface, but the pore itself is still open.
Many people may use the term pimple to describe both whiteheads and pustules.
While they share some similarities, they are not the same thing. Both issues occur from a clogged pore, as oil, bacteria, and skin cells block the pore.
However, pustules are a bit more advanced than a simple whitehead. In a pustule, the walls of the pore start to break down. Because of this, the pustule may be bigger than an average whitehead. It may also have a yellowish color to it. The area around a pustule may be harder, as well as red and tender to the touch.
Whiteheads are a type of blemish common to people with acne. They occur when pores get clogged and sebum gets trapped and sebum builds up, causing a white bump to appear on the surface of the skin.
Avoid popping whiteheads. This practice can spread dirt, oil, and bacteria further on the skin. It can also lead to further irritation and scarring. Instead of popping whiteheads, aim to build a skin care routine that cleanses, tones, and moisturizes the skin.
A number of home remedies for whiteheads, such as exfoliating the skin, removing extra oil from the pores, and killing bacteria, may help with factors that influence acne.
Acne affects each person differently, and suitable products vary from person to person. Individuals should work with a skin care professional to find suitable products for their skin and the best home remedies for whiteheads.